Contents

Acknowledgments
Note on Transliteration of Arabic Terms

Introduction: A Moment in History

xi
xiii
1

1 Boredom and Despair in Rural Egypt

27

2 An Hour for Your Heart and an Hour for Your Lord

47

3 Knowing Islam

65

4 Love Troubles

83

5 Capitalist Ethics?

105

6 I Want to Be Committed

128

7 Longing for the World

149

8 Condition: Normal

170

9 Those Who Said No

191

Conclusion: On Freedom, Destiny, and Consequences

216

Notes
References
Index

231
239
255

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Introduction
A Moment in History

T

he village of Nazlat al-Rayyis in northern Egypt, October 2009—in a café
I ran into Sa‘id, a soccer enthusiast whom I know from amateur soccer tournaments that take place every Ramadan. The global financial crisis was the talk of
the day, and I asked him how the people in the village were affected by it. Sa‘id
said, “Here with the poor people, it’s always crisis.” The more he talked about it,
the more upset he became:
  Here there is no middle, there are only poor people, and those who are
well off are thieves. The country is divided in those who are honest and
don’t know how to steal, and those who are thieves and well-off. You know
why I come here to watch soccer? I only watch soccer in order not to think.
There are people who watch soccer because they really love it, I just don’t
want to think. Just like people who take pills and hashish—if you talk to
one he is not there, he is happy and doesn’t think about anything. And if
his mother is sick or his family needs food he doesn’t care. He could only
care if he had power over his situation. But you can only have power over
your situation if you have money.
  But one must thank God and be content. We accept what our Lord gives
us, and it’s good, no one can refuse to be content with the will of God.
samuli: But should one be content with oppression?
sa‘id: In Egypt the government is very content with oppression. They oppress
and repress everybody. If someone reported me on what I tell you they
would take me and arrest me—everybody is afraid and oppressed.

Sa‘id interrupted his bitter lament of oppression and inequality for a moment
when he resorted to piety as a way to remind me and himself that there is higher
divine wisdom to the way the world is, and that a believer should always be content with the will of God. But how can one maintain that sense when one is expected to be wealthy, successful, and powerful while having no control over one’s
situation? For those without wealth or power, it is not always easy to distinguish
contentedness from despair.
The key question that Sa‘id takes up is how to have existential power over
one’s situation. He has two answers: contentedness with the will of God and

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1

2  |  Egypt in the Future Tense
money. But the question remains open, for Sa‘id’s contentedness is not of a lasting kind, and he does not have the means to make enough money.

A Stormy Season
Sa‘id narrated his lament in a historical moment that, in retrospect, appears as
the eve of the January 25 revolution: a time marked by great expectations and
deep frustrations, spectacular economic growth, an atmosphere of religious euphoria, a youth culture of romance and flirtation, a globally mediated sense of
fantasy, dramatic economical and social inequality, a sense of moral crisis, an almost unbearable pressure to migrate, and a mixture of fear and hatred toward the
government. For a moment in 2011, it appeared that this historical moment might
be over, about to be replaced by something more harmonious and less troubling:
a society in which Islamist politics and democracy would coexist, in which aspirations could be realized and people would have the power to change their condition. Like revolutions in general, the January 25 revolution was motivated not
only by poverty and oppression but also, and more importantly, by hope and
aspiration, strong and unfulfilled. The reality of postrevolutionary Egypt turned
out to be troubling, however, and the great hopes associated with the uprising of
2011 have been replaced by equally great frustrations and anxieties—and terrible
bloodshed.
The revolution began with bloodshed in late January and early February 2011, when around one thousand people were killed (most of them on January 28), most of them protesters who were facing the security forces of the falling
regime of Hosni Mubarak.1 During two and a half years of the not-so-peaceful
revolutionary period that followed, protesters were killed by security forces,
houses of Christians and other religious minorities were attacked by mobs, competing political groups staged street battles, and private conflicts were taken to
the streets and settled with guns. The spiral of confrontation reached its peak on
August 14, 2013, when supporters of deposed president Morsi were massacred
by security forces in an act of violence that cost more than a thousand lives,2
and that was expected and premeditated by everybody—the perpetrators, the
victims, and those who wanted to have nothing to do with it. The unwillingness and inability to prevent that and other massacres from happening constitute
a trauma marking Egyptians’ relations with one another and their sense about
hope, frustration, and possibility for decades to come. August 14, 2013, was the
darkest hour of a period that some have called the Arab spring, but that I prefer
to call a stormy season, in analogy to the Coptic month of Amshir (February 8
to March 9), which is characterized by stormy, unpredictable weather.3 The one
good thing about that day is that it made it impossible to write an enthusiastic
story of the Egyptian revolution as the daybreak of a new, qualitatively different
(i.e., better) era in the history of Egypt.

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Introduction | 3
This book is in any case not a story of the revolution (if there was a revolution). It is the story of a longer trajectory of the pressing and often frustrating expectation of something more and better to come, of which the January 25
uprising was a part—an important part indeed, but only a part. An ambivalent
unity of hope, frustration, anxiety, and struggle is characteristic not only of the
revolution but in fact of all great expectations—religious, economical, moral, romantic, economical, political, or other—expressed by Egyptians in the current
moment and the recent past. This book tells about those hopes; how they coexist
in everyday lives; the paths people undertake to pursue them; and the frustrations, anxieties, and unintended consequences that accompany them.
Hope and trust in Egypt at the turn of the millennium have found their
primary expression in religion. The previous four decades have witnessed a tremendous increase and a significant shift in religiosity among Egyptians, both
Muslims and Christians.4 Among the Muslim majority of the population, an
Islamic revival has made a scripturally oriented and conservative sense of religiosity the most powerful source of moral certainty and existential hope. During the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 and 2013, this revivalist
sense of religion also gained political power. The polarization that marked that
moment, however, also destabilized the power of religion as the source of moral
certainty, and three years after the January 25 uprising, the consensus about the
importance of piety among Muslim Egyptians has been shattered and replaced
by a violent competition of militarist-nationalist, Islamist, revolutionary leftist,
and other sources of moral certainty. And yet, also during the late years of the
Mubarak regime, when there existed something like a consensus about the importance of fearing God, religiosity was neither a singular nor an uncontested
source of hope and certainty. It was intertwined with and informed by other
great promises and senses of hope—economical, romantic, community oriented,
individualistic, political. The same people believe in the absolute truth of Islam,
search for a base for sound moral conduct, desire and crave, fall in love, try to
move up the social ladder, aspire to a life of comfortable middle-class consumerism, oppose the “system” of political economy, compare their situation with
those in the wider world, believe in Egypt’s supremacy over other nations, want
to forget their worries and live in the moment, feel bored and frustrated, and do
what they can to realize a life of dignity. What they can actually do, however, is
only partially in their hands. They follow paths that are available and compelling,
and the consequences of doing so, following paths unknown at the time they
choose them, may be surprising, confusing, or disappointing. At rare moments,
the decisions they make may shake the world.
This book explores the deep relationships between hope and frustration, ideals and experience, aims and consequences—under conditions of neoliberal capitalism, revivalist Islam, and political polarization. Rather than assuming Muslim

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4  |  Egypt in the Future Tense
religiosity to be irreducibly different from other great aspirations, however, this
account explores the commonalities of those aspirations by focusing on the existential motivations and ambiguities of pursuing moral and spiritual perfection
in an imperfect world. It is based on in-depth ethnographic study of social experience at a particular historical moment that is most dramatically marked by
the stormy season of Arab uprisings between 2011 and 2013—but there are many
other, more important stories to be told about that moment as well.
Grounded in a dialogic approach to ethnography and a view of anthropology as an open-ended conversation, rather than distanced observation, this book
is not a detached one. It draws on diverse approaches. My narrative jumps from
topic to topic, privileging contradictions and discontents. While it stands in a
venerable tradition of ethnography as a way to provide a complex picture of multiple aspects of social experience, it is also a consciously partial narrative, and
at times partisan. This is partly a matter of personal liking, the kind of story I
am most comfortable telling. More important, though, it is a matter of the complexity and ambivalence at the heart of the reality I describe. Thus, although at
times it may give the impression of being a subjective account, this book is in fact
rather positivistic in its approach, committed to adjusting its narrative, style, and
theory to the world it describes, and not vice versa.

The Setting: Complex Realities and Grand Schemes
What kind of a world, what kind of a social experience, are we talking about,
then? Where is it happening? Who is involved in it? This book is based on longterm ethnographic fieldwork among people who mostly could be described as
lower middle class—poor but aspiring, educated but not well connected, usually
hailing from provincial milieus—in the cities and villages of northern Egypt,
Egypt’s most populous region. Most of the people I write about come from one
village near the Mediterranean coast, but many live in Alexandria and Cairo,
Egypt’s two largest cities. Among the people I write about, there are fewer women
than men, and even fewer people from urban, bourgeois backgrounds. Almost all
are Muslims. Most were between their teens and early thirties when I began my
research, although they have grown older and many have married, so that this
book is no longer about “the youth” per se.
In search of ways to grasp the many connections and trajectories of people’s
lives, I decided to return to the old-fashioned anthropological tradition of village
ethnography. But villages are not what they used to be, and the same must count
for village ethnography. While my ethnography has its focal point in a village,
more of the ethnographic work has been actually conducted outside the village,
in Alexandria, Cairo, and abroad.
The village of Nazlat al-Rayyis (not its real name, just as the people I write
about do not appear here with their real names—with some exceptions5), the

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Introduction | 5

Figure INT.1.  Village alleyway, Nazlat al-Rayyis, October 2007.

f­ocal point of this book, is located between the Rosetta branch of the river Nile
and Lake Burullus, not far from the Mediterranean coast. First mentioned in medieval chronicles, it was originally a fishermen’s harbor at the shores of the once
much-larger lake. Today, it is surrounded by fields on all sides, because much of
Lake Burullus has been drained for agricultural use in the past century. Like all
Egyptian villages built on cultivated land, Nazlat al-Rayyis is extremely densely
populated. With narrow unpaved alleys and small houses covered by rice straw
to heat ovens, it continues to give an impression of rurality, but it is deeply connected to the surrounding metropolises.6
In the 2000s, a shared understanding prevailed in Nazlat al-Rayyis that people have become more religious and that this is a good thing. People greet each
other with the Islamic greeting “peace be upon you” (as-salamu ‘alaykum) rather

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6  |  Egypt in the Future Tense

Figure INT.2.  Construction of a new house on agricultural land on the outskirts of the
village, Nazlat al-Rayyis, October 2010.

than with the religiously neutral “good morning” or “good evening.” Construction of a lofty new mosque began in 2006 on the outskirts of the village (although
this work was put on hold in 2009, rumored to be a result of losses during the
global financial crisis). The village bar closed decades ago, and all adult women
now wear the headscarf (higab), covering themselves so that only hands, feet, and
face are visible.
Despite this increased religiosity, the inhabitants do not feel that their village
has generally become a better place to live. Measured in terms of the quality of
housing and the possession of consumer goods, the standard of living has risen
significantly in the past decades, but so have economic pressures and frustration.
There is a widespread sense of insecurity and moral alienation. Young people often express a nihilistic sense of boredom and frustration. As almost everywhere
in Egypt, marijuana and hashish have swept over the black market in tremendous quantities and at low prices, and many young people have become habitual
consumers.
A center of schools for surrounding villages, and less than five kilometers
away from the nearby town, Nazlat al-Rayyis is well connected by rural standards. The village claims a high level of literacy and education by rural standards,
and it has a history of political activism. It became a stronghold of the Wafd
Party in the 1920s, and experienced a period of socialist and communist activity

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Introduction | 7
in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the beginning of the 1990s it has had a strong and
active branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in 2011, a small but active circle of
revolutionary activists formed in the village. According to information given on
the phone by the district administration, the village had 12,800 inhabitants in the
national census of 2006, but many live in cities or abroad, returning to the village
only during vacations.
International migration is an important part of the economic and social life
of the village, with waves of labor migration to Iraq in the 1970s and 1980s and
to the Arab Gulf states since the 1990s. Many of the old two-story houses are
making way for larger houses of up to four, even six, floors, built with the money
of labor migrants. Aside from money earned through migration, the economy
of the village relies mainly on fishing, farming, and public-sector jobs. While
fishing has become less important and less lucrative as a result of pollution and
land reclamation projects, it remains an important part of residents’ identity
(Tordhol 2014).
One of the descendants of fishermen with great expectations is Tawfiq, who
appears frequently in this book. His grandfather, al-Hagg Mu‘izz was a fisherman for most of his life, and his uncle Isma‘il runs a small shop and struggles
to find a regular position as a schoolteacher. Tawfiq is a civil servant in a local
health center, but his work is so poorly paid that it does not even cover running
expenses. His dream, when I met him, was to migrate abroad. By the time I finished writing this book, he had spent altogether more than four years working
as a security guard in the Arab Gulf states. Tawfiq’s family is connected through
marriage to that of Abdelnaser and Muntasir, two brothers, also from a fisherman’s family (they occasionally still work on fishing boats on the lake), who were
running a successful shop in the village until the global rise in food prices forced
them to close it in 2008. Since then, they, too, have been trying to provide income
and save money for marriage by migrating to Saudi Arabia, but they have faced
great adversity.
The vast majority of people who appear in this books are linked with Tawfiq
by ties of family, work, passion for soccer, shared political commitment, or friendship. One of Tawfiq’s closest friends is Mustafa. Unlike Tawfiq, Mustafa does not
come from a family of fishermen, and both of his parents received some education.
His material situation is slightly better than Tawfiq’s, and his personal trajectory is
in many ways different. He had been active in a Salafi group for a short period in
2006 when I first met him, and for a long time he felt disoriented, unlike Tawfiq,
who had more clearly defined political and personal visions. While Tawfiq went
for the career of a migrant worker, Mustafa chose the riskier path of making himself independent as a sales representative—with relatively good success.
These and other people who appear in this book come from a variety of
different class positions in the village society, depending on their background,

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8  |  Egypt in the Future Tense
education, and livelihood. They mostly consider themselves to be middle class,
although they often acknowledge that they are, in fact, relatively poor. From a
metropolitan, bourgeois point of view, they would appear to be representatives
of diffuse masses of rural poor people. And yet in reality, it is very difficult to
tell who is rural and who is urban in today’s Egypt, with the exception of a small
segment of entirely urban bourgeoisie. Most rural people live or work in cities
for longer or shorter periods of time, and they switch between rural and urban
dialects as they move back and forth.7
From Nazlat al-Rayyis, it is a little more than an hour’s minibus ride to Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city. Because of its proximity, many villagers frequent Alexandria for work, study, medical care, and business. Some have moved
permanently to the city but continue to visit the village on weekends.
Among them are the schoolteacher Fouad and his wife, Nazli. Fouad is a
relative of Tawfiq and moved to the eastern outskirts of Alexandria in the mid2000s. The family continues to move back and forth between the city and the
village. Mustafa and his brother Salah moved to the western outskirts of Alexandria in 2009 but continue to visit the village where their mother lives almost
every weekend. Even those who have lived in the city much longer, like Mukhtar
Shehata (a relative of Fouad and, like him, a teacher), remain closely linked with
the village, and in many ways the outskirts of Alexandria are also outskirts of
the village.
People moving from the village to Alexandria usually settle in informal areas (‘ashwa’iyat) in the far west or east of the city. One of those areas is the inland part of al-Mandara in eastern Alexandria, a district divided by the Abu Qir
railway line into a relatively well-off seaside (bahri), where high-rise buildings,
expensive cafés, restaurants, and night clubs line the seafront, and a low-income,
“popular,” informal housing area on the inland (qibli) side. Inland Mandara is
crammed with apartment houses that, though often illegally built, often have
more than ten floors, a result of the extreme congestion and high land prices. It is
one of the places where people from the village are most likely to move for work
and study, and like most of urban Egypt today, it is primarily dominated by descendants of migrants from the countryside. With its narrow but straight streets
and its anonymous new buildings, its class and confessional divisions, as well as
its location next to the Mediterranean Sea and, by extension, Europe, al-Mandara
is a privileged place from which to understand the social dynamics of Egypt as
part of a highly dynamic, unequal world.
Alexandria is also an important base of the Salafi movement in Egypt, to
the extent that Salafism, which promotes a morally and ritually pure life based
strictly on Islamic scripture, has come close to being the predominant form of
Islam practiced in inland Mandara. The Salafi current is not an organization.
It consists of several competing groups with key leading figures, in addition to

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Introduction | 9
individual Salafis who do not belong to any group. While the views of Salafis
from different groups on ritual and moral life are often fairly similar, their position toward state and politics, as well as their social base, can be quite different.
Throughout the city, buildings, public transportation, shops, and homes are covered by posters and stickers calling people to pray and fast, to bless the Prophet,
to mind their manners and cultivate their characters, to fight the Jews and feed
the poor. Women are called to cover their hair and bodies and men to teach Islam
to their families. Until 2011, religious literature dominated the newsstands and
bookstores. Broadcasts and recordings of the Qur’an and sermons are routinely
played in cafés, buses, shops, and homes.
While various social niches have continued to cultivate worldviews and lifestyles that are at odds with the wave of Islamic revival, also those who do not
support the Salafi movement generally show a strong emotional commitment to
the religion of Islam. Until 2011, there was a very wide consensus that Muslims
should fear God; fulfill their religious duties; shape their lives and societies according to Islamic principles; and defend their faith, the Prophet, and their Muslim brothers and sisters. One of the consequences of this consensus has been that
the position of those who are not part of it has become increasingly precarious—a
problem that particularly concerns Egypt’s large Christian minority (between
5 percent and 10 percent of Egyptians), which is facing significant pressure and
tensions in an atmosphere of heightened confessionalism. During the past decade, Alexandria has witnessed several anti-Christian clashes and a disastrous
terror attack against a church (Heo 2013b).
At the same time, Alexandria is also an oppositional city. Because of its relative distance from the center of power, in Cairo, it has suffered from a certain
neglect by the national government (albeit not nearly as grave as that experienced
by other provincial cities). This neglect also provided grounds and spaces for a
widespread oppositional attitude in the city during the Mubarak era. This made
Alexandria one of the centers of the January 25 revolution. Islamist movements
continue to form the best-organized political power in the city (except for the
Armed Forces, of course), but the political landscape of the city is far from being under the control of any one of the parties involved. In the first round of
the presidential elections in 2012, for example, the Nasserist socialist candidate
Hamdeen Sabbahi was the clear winner in Alexandria, leaving Mohamed Morsi,
the eventual winner of the race on the national level, far behind in fourth place
(Schielke 2012b; Ali 2012).
One of the many currents that were involved in the political contestation in
and of Alexandria between 2011 and 2013 was what was called the “revolutionary
current,” marked by the double rejection of the Mubarak system and Islamist
politics. Among those revolutionaries are a few people who hail from the village,
notably Fouad and Zaher. The latter currently lives between Alexandria and a

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10  |  Egypt in the Future Tense
satellite city, where he works in a private-sector company. But more prominent
in this current are people like Rasha, whose families have lived in the city for a
generation or longer and who are socialized in the milieu of the urban bourgeoisie. What brings these people together despite their different class backgrounds is
their shared political commitment and the fact that they move in similar cultural
circles.
Cairo, Egypt’s gigantic capital, is unlike any other place in the country. Here
the financial, political, and cultural elites of the country concentrate. For a visitor
from the Egyptian province, the city is not only congested, loud, and chaotic; it
is also fancy, cosmopolitan, and expensive. It is a place to make money, to make
a career, to make things happen—it is a center of wealth, power, culture, and
glamour. Cairo is the place to be, so to speak, in Egypt.
Fewer people from the village live in Cairo than in Alexandria. Cairo is
farther away, and the cost of living there is prohibitive. Those who do occupy
vastly divergent class positions in Cairene society. With the decline of fishing
on Lake Burullus, some fishermen have moved to Cairo to work as doormen or
garbage collectors. At the upper end of the social scale, a few university graduates have managed to make a middle-class living in the capital. Tawfiq’s cousin
Hilmi, who felt that he had been stuck in the village for many years, managed to
find work in Cairo as a journalist in 2010, making him one the few people I know
who has managed to move upward in the class structure of the capital. His friend
Shady from the neighboring village managed to get a job at the Organization for
Cultural Centers through another friend who worked there, but his income and
living conditions are precarious at best. ‘Abbas, who used to play soccer with
Tawfiq in the village, studied in Cairo for some years and faced formidable economical hardship. Eventually, he had to return to the village, and later he migrated for work to the United Arab Emirates.
The path of social advancement in the capital is a difficult one, and many
more would like to move to Cairo if only they could. But few in the village have
wasta, or “a connection,” in the form of relatives or useful contacts in the capital
that would help them to make a start.
Making a career without wasta is a Herculean task in Egypt’s highly stratified class society. The Mubarak era witnessed the development of the old social
institution of wasta into the central principle of neoliberal governance. Everybody, from the poorest to the richest, has been compelled to do all they can to
get the right connections. Knowing the right people helps one to get a job, to
get promoted, to build a house, to start a company, to be released from police
custody, and to be acquitted from criminal charges. Not knowing the right people, one has to expect to work in low-level positions for little or precarious pay,
to see one’s property destroyed, and to be arbitrarily arrested and tortured by
the police.

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Introduction | 11
This is just a short and superficial glimpse of three places and a few people
in Egypt during and immediately after the Mubarak era. It is not a harmonious
image. Some of the tensions and contradictions are troubling, oppressive, and
violent. Others present themselves as a complex patchwork of different kinds of
hope, different senses of living a good life. The same people who repent their sins
and think about the afterworld also debate the previous evening’s soccer match,
tell jokes, feel bored, curse the old and new presidents, and glance at the opposite
sex—all the while with religious stickers decorating the walls around them and
the voice of the Qur’an in the background. They entertain ideals of obsessive romantic love that defies all norms. They search for a place in life, try to be responsible toward their families, and dream about new possibilities for themselves.
They try to make money and to move up in society, often by any means possible.
And in different moments, they hold different points of view and outlooks of life,
arguing for them in very different tones.
Many of the things people pursue are absolute, perfectionist, and totalizing.
Religion promises a good life in this world and the hereafter through total moral
and spiritual commitment. Romantic love celebrates obsessive passion in spite of
rational constraints. Making money by any means possible subjects everything
to an economic calculus. How can we understand the coexistence of these ideas
in a way that allows us to account for perfectionist promises and the inconsistencies of their coexistence in daily life?
Writing about sermons recorded and circulated on cassette tapes, Charles
Hirschkind (2006a) fittingly described the ubiquitous presence of the recordings
as an “ethical soundscape” that fills and structures the noisy and crowded spaces
of Cairo. The sensory presence of Islam as an idiom of life, morality, and politics
is formidable indeed. It is present in the sounds of prayer calls, sermons, and recitations; it is in the visual presence of religious decoration, graffiti, stickers, and
the minarets that mark the skyline. It is present in the bodily moves of prayer and
invocation; the strain of wearing covering dress in hot weather; the exchange of
greetings, phrases, and handshakes; and the smell of certain perfumes preferred
by Salafi activists. But this sensory presence is seldom clearly differentiated from
other very different kinds of sounds, images, and sensory experiences that mark
the everyday of the big city and provinces alike (see Ingold 2011: 136–139). Moving
and interacting in the crowded spaces of Egypt’s cities and villages requires commanding a wealth of gestures and affective and rhetorical styles, including the
solemn and pious, the witty and humorous, the polite and considerate, and the
rude and obscene (Elyachar 2011). Rather than a competition of pious and secular
sensory regimes, an unpredictable coexistence of different nuances, moments,
and registers characterizes daily life in Egypt (see Ghannam 2002: 181; 2013).
Speculative investment in mosques carries the double virtue of pious
deed and tax benefits. Women’s religious dress is a major fashion industry.

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12  |  Egypt in the Future Tense
­ dvertisements, declarations of love, and competing political messages fill the
A
walls in the cities and villages alike. The spread of private satellite channels has
opened the way for Salafi-oriented religious channels teaching puritanical morals, highly sexualized video clips providing a fantasy world of fame, Turkish
soap operas speaking to the hearts of women who want to be loved, and political
talk shows of both the satirical and the serious kind into Egyptian living rooms,
living rooms that have been furnished with much effort by aspiring Egyptian
families to match a cosmopolitan lifestyle up to global standards.
On the seafront of Alexandria and on the Nile promenades of Cairo, lovers
(habbiba) are everywhere. Pairs of young people walk or sit on the promenades,
talking to each other, sometimes holding hands, always close together while keeping a polite distance from other couples. In a minibus driving up and down the
seafront in Alexandria, religious stickers admonish young people about dating:
“Didn’t he know that God sees?” “Would you accept it for your sister?” Indeed,
the idea of young unmarried people dating, sitting shoulder to shoulder, holding
hands, and possibly kissing is a cause of considerable moral unease among Egyptians. But at the same time, the same Egyptians may consider the meetings of lovers a natural part of life, and they may write and consume love poetry and songs,
celebrate Valentine’s Day, and proudly identify themselves as romantic people
(Kreil 2012). Some do decide to become “committed” and give up all the ambivalence, stop writing love letters and looking the other sex in the eyes, and instead
dedicate themselves to the purpose of purified piety. But for many of them, this is
a passing period in a complex biography. And for many more, one does not cancel
out the other to start with. Also the very pious can fall madly in love, and when it
comes to marriage, revivalist piety sometimes becomes an ally of romantic love
in face of family interests.
It might seem as if different worlds stood here side by side: the world of Islam
as a regime of divine protection, order, and justice; the world of global capitalism
with its investment in financial schemes; the world of commercial media with its
reliance on consumerism, advertisement, and desire; the world of romantic love
with its celebration of passion. But these are not different worlds. They are constituents, parts, of people’s lifeworlds—lifeworlds that can never be explained by
any single principle but that must be understood in their complexity and openness, in their many hopes and frustrations. While the conservative ethics of the
religious revival may appear completely opposed to, for example, the celebration
of romance and sexuality in pop music, film, video clips, and youth culture, in
fact one cannot be understood without the other, nor are they clearly distinct
in  people’s lives. To understand what exactly is going on, we must take these
different pursuits as elements of a complex and often contradictory subjective
experience and practice that is guided by but never reduced to great promises
and grand schemes (Schielke and Debevec 2012). By “grand schemes,” I mean

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Introduction | 13
persons, ideas, and powers that are understood to be greater than one’s ordinary
life, located on a higher plane, distinct from everyday life, and yet relevant as
models for living.
Grand schemes of this kind appear to be external and superior to everyday
experience, a higher and reliable measure and guideline for living. What makes
them so powerful is precisely the ambiguity that is central to their assumed externality. By virtue of their apparent perfection they can be called and acted upon,
and yet the contradictions and setbacks of everyday experience seldom shake
their credibility (see Simon 2009, 2012). Even if one’s attempt to live a life guided
by a grand scheme is frustrated by failures and tragedies, that grand scheme remains valid and credible. By virtue of their inherent ambiguity, appearing to be
external to daily life and yet carrying existential significance for the everyday,
such grand schemes can never be accounted for in isolation. They must always
be understood as connected in at least two dimensions: first, in their relation to
everyday concerns and experiences; and second, in their relation to other compelling grand schemes that promise to provide meaning and direction to those
concerns and experiences.
Thinking about grand schemes and the promises and hopes they entail is
to give priority to existential grounds of action and imagination over discursive rationality and cultural traditions. This means that rather than focusing on
how exactly a specific discourse, idea, or rationality is articulated, legitimated,
or defended, I ask what people try to accomplish by taking a discourse seriously,
pursuing an idea, embodying a rationality, and with what consequences. Some
attempts are more consistent than others. Some attempts actually help people to
live a better life as they understand it. Others result in tragedy. Most are ambivalent, providing both satisfaction and suffering. Many attempts are short lived,
and almost all of them are partial. In all cases, the grand schemes are forever
unrealized, and yet always apparently within reach, promising a hold, a direction
in a difficult, complex, and often frustrating life.
Such an approach involves a shift from a culturalist (looking at the shared
specificities of a locality or a tradition) toward a more humanistic (addressing
those specificities as constituents of human existence in general) take on anthropology.8 And yet I do not think that the pursuit of particular grand schemes,
promises, anxieties, trajectories, or moments of satisfaction and frustration is universally transferable across place and time. The pursuit of grand schemes is itself
fundamentally shaped by (and shaping) the world in a particular place and time.

The Age of Revivals and the Shape of the World
We live in a world in which there is great demand for knowledge about the history, institutions, and currents of Islam, as well as the religious views and lives

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14  |  Egypt in the Future Tense
of Muslims. The paradox is that while most anthropologists take explicitly antiimperialist stances and sympathize with their Muslim interlocutors and at least
some of their concerns, the availability of funding for research on Islam tends to
respond to political demands for policing migrant populations, providing expert
knowledge for trade and foreign policies, or winning wars (Sunier 2012; Johansen
and Spielhaus 2012). Regardless of what the researcher’s stance toward these policies may be, the politics of research have meant that recent anthropological study
of the Middle East has been framed predominantly in relation to Islam, ignoring
other dimensions of experience and broader human concerns. This is troubling,
because the problems this book addresses are in no way unique to the followers
of a particular religious tradition.
Between the early 1970s and the 2000s, there was a dramatic intensification
of and shift in the attachment to Islam among Muslims worldwide, so also in
Egypt. Islam has, of course, long been present in the lives of Egyptian Muslims
who have spoken and acted in the name of God, marked their lives and expressed
their feelings through prayers and invocations, cultivated an intimate attachment to the Prophet Muhammad, relied in their social interactions on Islamic
traditions of legal and moral reasoning, and sought the help of Muslim “friends
of God” or saints in times of trouble and sickness. This was a vision of a life
based on the presence of God, the Prophet, and the friends of God in everyday
life, at times reassuring and legitimizing, at times frightening and disciplining.
Islam, in this sense, is an intimate relationship rather than a holistic system (for
parallels in Roman Catholicism, see Orsi 2005). In contrast, the vision of Islam
that has become prevalent in Egypt and much of the Muslim world today is that
of a perfect system that is all-encompassing yet pure and distinct, somehow located outside and above everyday life. The demand and striving for knowing and
practicing Islam properly that has characterized recent decades is a demand for
a qualitatively different sense of being a Muslim, shifting the emphasis from living a life at times trusting and at times fearing God as a powerful but intimate
master of life and world, to living a life “by the book,” carefully distinguishing
the Islamic and the un-Islamic. A prime example of this shift is the way the veneration of Muslim saints has lost its centrality at the core of Muslim spirituality
while, at the same time, the study of religious texts and rulings has become more
important (see Eickelman 1992; Schielke 2012a). This shift from a relational to an
ideological sense of religiosity is a shift of emphasis, of course. Just as scriptural
norms have always counted, intimate relationality continues to matter. But the
order of priority has changed.
In English, this intensification and shift in religiosity has often been labeled
“the Islamic revival” (a free translation of “the Islamic awakening,” al-sahwa
al-islamiya, the term of preference used by religious activists). I find that term

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Introduction | 15
rather fitting. There is a dynamic and creative moment implied in revival, and
the ­Islamic revival is best understood as a historical event characterized by a
turn to a specific kind of religiosity associated with strong hopes and anxieties,
intimately linked to a shift in the shape of the world at large.
The Islamic revival is not the only religious revival gaining momentum, nor
is the revivalist pursuit of clarity and purity necessarily linked with religious
traditions. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity and Hindu nationalism are
the best-known examples, but there is a vast variety of structurally similar revival and reform movements in different religious traditions, such as the Theravada Buddhist reform (Leve 2002), as well as African “animist” movements
directed against the encroachment of Islam or Christianity (Bowie 2006). The
way in which the new anti-immigrant populist nationalism in Western Europe
addresses a sense of existential and societal anxiety and offers simple enemies,
a plan of action, and a harmonious image of “our” good way of life shows striking similarities with religious revivals (Hage 2003). Importantly, the militarist
nationalism that became the rallying ground of the new military regime lead
by General Abdelfattah El-Sisi in the summer of 2013, is also a grand project of
purity and clarity that promises to resolve the current anxieties and bring about a
better future through the attachment to military leadership and values, paranoid
anti-imperialism, and a strong friend-foe binary.
These religious and populist movements build on that which people already
put faith in and identify themselves with, transforming those things into projects
of national and global politics as well as of personal integrity and hope. They
do so with a double move of emphatic attachment to a shared ground of truth
and certainty, and a heightened anxiety and sensitivity toward those who do
not share that firm ground. Such movements share a significant reinterpretation
of religious and communal traditions; a strong emphasis on purity on various
levels; the cultivation of a strong moral sentiment of righteous indignation; the
mobilizing power of grassroots, political, and commercial groups; a heritage of
modernism; an affinity to the commodity form and the pursuit of wealth; and
last but not least, the striking simultaneity of the rise of religious and populist revivals with the rise of capitalist, consumption-oriented economy and neoliberal
governance (see, e.g., de Boeck 2009; Eckert 2009; Smilde 2007).
We should therefore search for the grounds of such revivals less in the religious or political traditions themselves than in the general shape of the world
that compels people to approach their religious scriptures and political histories
with particular kinds of questions in mind (see, e.g., Piot 2010; Appadurai 2013).
We cannot understand the significance of Islam in the contemporary world if we
do not also understand the significance of modernist regimes of knowledge, the
coexistence of different notions of morality and embodiment, the imaginaries

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16  |  Egypt in the Future Tense
of romantic love, the promises and menaces of global capitalism, the emotional
attachment to nationalism, and the frustrations and dead ends involved in all
ideals and promises of good life.
This is not to argue for a Marxist reduction of the spiritual and the moral to
relations of production. Nor is it to argue for the Weberian counterpoint of tracing the origins of economic practices to spiritual dispositions. Instead, I try to
think of the spiritual, the moral, and the economic as existing on the same plane
to start with. I think of capitalist economy less as a relationship of production or a
rationality of accumulation and more as a deeper sensibility of being in the world.
Distinctions such as religious and secular, moral and economic, and political and private often disguise underlying resonances between seemingly distinct
practices, as well as contradictions within apparently consistent ones. Commodity exchange requires that morality appear to be separate from economy. The
nation-state often requires religion to be subordinate to politics. Patriarchy depends on the naturalization of a gendered distribution of labor. However, actually living in a capitalist economy, a nation-state, or a patriarchal family requires
an implicit and explicit practical knowledge that works on a different plane,
a knowledge about how to make things happen, to find recognition and help,
to survive. This underlying practical knowledge, the experience from which it
arises and to which it contributes, is what phenomenology calls a lifeworld, or
Lebenswelt (see Gadamer 1975: 229–250; Merleau-Ponty 1945: 403–425), a horizon
of expectation and action that is existentially united but by no means smooth and
consistent. It is therefore not on the level of political or intellectual discourses,
with their preoccupation with putting things neatly in their place, but on the level
of the lifeworlds of contemporary Egyptians where an ethnographic inquiry into
the nexus of religiosity, economy, and other aspirational schemes needs to begin.
Thinking about the shape of the world from a phenomenological point of
view of experience and existential pursuits echoes the observation by Michael
Jackson (1996: 2) that “the knowledge whereby one lives is not necessarily identical with the knowledge whereby one explains life.” This is by no means to argue
that the people this book talks with would not be aware of what they are involved
in, or not able or willing to articulate it. On the contrary, they are often very well
aware of, and very good at articulating, their experiences and endeavors. Much
of this book relies heavily on their own theorizing about their situation. What I
want to draw attention to is, rather, that we need to resist the temptation to take
the categories most visible in intellectual, legal, and political debates as those that
matter most.
What does matter, then? This book has developed in an eclectic fashion from
an attempt to account for some of the things that really matter for the people
with whom I have worked. It is a very hopeful world, but that hope comes with a
troubling dimension of pressure, uncertainty, and anxiety.

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